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Abortion Rights In Ireland: Now Is The Time For Change

10/11/2016 16:07 | Updated 11 November 2016
PAUL FAITH via Getty Images

In 2003, in the middle of studying for an MA in English, I finally made a much anticipated trip to Canada with my then partner. I had been enthralled by this vast, unknowable country since I had started reading the novels of Margaret Atwood at the age of 15. Now, aged 25, I was finally going to visit Toronto, the scene of many of Atwood's earlier novels, as welI as travel around much of the country.

In Toronto, I met Atwood herself, doing a few days of work experience with her assistants, who were housed in the office in the basement of her home. I also visited the archives at the University of Toronto's library, and looked through Atwood's unpublished papers and letters. In one of Atwood's letters, written when she was heavily pregnant with her daughter, Atwood observed that she couldn't imagine how awful it would be to be forcibly pregnant. She commented that there is a word for being made to have sex against your will, but not for being pregnant against your will. She concluded that there needed to be.

Fast forward a few weeks and I was in Newfoundland, the furthest East it is possible to go in Canada. I felt distinctly odd. I urinated on a stick in a run-down motel and, unlike the pregnancy test I had taken a couple of weeks before, the test came back positive. As I saw that line flush up on the stick with all its grim inevitability, it is was as though I stepped aside from my body. I went into organising mode. I needed an abortion. I did not want to be pregnant. I did not want a baby yet. One day, but not then. My MA. My travels. No, not then.

But procuring an abortion in Newfoundland proved to be all but impossible. Medical staff repeatedly asked me whether I wanted a boy or a girl. Neither, I wanted an abortion. What names had I thought of, they ask? An abortion I had booked was 'cancelled' at the last minute due to lack of staff. They 'might' be able to do one in a week, maybe two...In the end, we gave up on our travels and flew home to London. I had a termination, 6 weeks pregnant, at a private clinic. The whole thing was so much traumatic than it needed to be.

Women in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland face the same battles if they should need to access abortion care. After a public vote in 1983, the controversial 8th amendment was written into the Irish constitution, equating the right to life of the unborn with the mother's right to life.

As a result of this law, approximately 12 women a day travel from Ireland to England to access abortion. Imagine travelling, often in secret, whilst feeling afraid, quite possibly sick, and having to find the extra money for flights and a night in a hotel.

And those are the lucky ones. For women living in poverty, and notably migrant women, the barriers may prove too much. In 2016 we have women resorting to drinking bleach in order to try to end their pregnancy. In 2016. Just across the Irish Sea. No feminist - no human with an ounce of compassion - can tolerate this. Indeed, in the words of Ruth Fletcher, senior lecturer in Law at Queen Mary University, London, speaking to the packed inaugural meeting of Repeal the 8th London this week, "We should be angry. It is entirely rational we should be angry."

Four years ago, the horrifying - and preventable - death in an Irish hospital of Savita Halappanavar, a young Indian woman who sought and was refused an abortion after she began to miscarry, made international headlines. It also kick-started a louder campaign within Northern Ireland to demand that women there have the same access to abortion as women in England, Scotland and Wales.

In August, a woman and her friend who needed an abortion, did something brave. They documented, via Twitter, that journey to England. In tweets directed at the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, provided a running commentary of their experience as they boarded planes, trains and then sat in an abortion clinic waiting room a room. They weren't the only Irish women in the waiting room, unsurprisingly.

Campaigners are demanding a referendum that would give people a chance to repeal the 8th amendment.

The campaign to allow abortion to take place in Ireland is gathering pace, both in mainland UK and in the country itself, with the move to allow same-sex marriage viewed as evidence the time is ripe for change. Indeed, the results of a telephone poll conducted earlier this year are encouraging, suggesting that 87% of people in Ireland want access to abortion expanded. Women have even presented themselves at police stations, 'admitted' they have had abortions and asked to be prosecuted as a way of challenging their country's misogynistic law.

At the same time, a backlash has sprung up, which has seen Dr Caroline Gannon, one of the country's only two paediatric pathologists, resigning over interventions by Northern Ireland's attorney general on abortion laws surrounding fatal foetal abnormality. One such intervention in 2015 saw the Attorney General appealing a High Court judgement which ruled that Northern Ireland's almost outright ban on abortion breaches human rights law.

Dr Gannon investigated the deaths of babies including those in the womb or stillbirths. She said the final straw was having to advise a couple, who had procured an abortion in England due to a foetal abnormality and who wanted a post-mortem, to use a picnic cooler bag to transport their baby's remains back to Northern Ireland.

Since having an abortion in 2003, I have gone on to have two planned pregnancies, and now have two children, aged five and nine. I know how hard it is to be pregnant; with my first pregnancy, I was sick two or three times a day for 20 weeks, and was hospitalised as a result. (The same thing happened with my second pregnancy, but for a mere 10 weeks that time).

No woman should have to go through that against her will. No woman should have to scrabble about for money and shroud herself in secrecy at this already difficult time in her life. One on three women will have a termination at some point in their lives. It's not something that should be in any way taboo or indeed be legislated against.

For more information on the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment:
repeal.ie
x-ileproject.com
facebook.com/RepealLondon

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